My recent posts at World-Architects


Thursday, March 10, 2005

The Holl Truth

The Kansas City Star reports (alt. bugmenot link) that Steven Holl will give a presentation on his design of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art's Bloch Building in Kansas City, addressing negative controversy over the project.

All I've seen on this "controversy" is a Feb. 3 article in The Pitch, K.C.'s alternative weekly paper. Written by somebody calling himself (herself?) The Strip, the piece actually praises the interior but takes exception with the exterior, eloquently saying, "it [looks] like ass." The Star points out that, "detractors have complained that what they see going up doesn't have the magic of the luminous initial design that was presented to the public."

Let's take a look:

Missing image - atkins1.jpg
Early model of the design.

Missing image - atkins2.jpg
Rendering of the design.

Missing image - atkins3.jpg
Photos of the construction site.

The area of contention is the vertical strips between pieces of glass (apparently Pilkington's channel glass). This detail is missing from the model, a conceptual image that eliminates any expression of construction in favor of expression of idea. If anything mislead people it was this model, as the rendering does show a vertical striping, though not as pronounced as the actual condition.

So basically critics are arguing that the public was cheated; that the initial design and the built work don't jibe. This is very common in architecture - with presentations expressing feeling over actual construction (usually not fully know at the time) - though photo-realistic renderings, made possible by computer model and rendering software, is becoming the norm. Could it be that the public expects the latter? Do all architectural renderings need to accurately display their built image or the public is lost?

Eliminating gestural, expressionistic sketches is unlikely, though taking exception with the differences between concept and execution points towards the necessity for "as-built" renderings in public building designs. This would be unfortunate, especially if architects were actually responsible for the narrowing the gap between the two, something the detractors of the Holl design seem to want.

But beyond this generalization regarding design and construction image, I think people are upset because the neo-classical Nelson-Atkins Museum has been a beloved part of Kansas City's built environment (having attended architecture school in Kansas, and made numerous trips to Kansas City, the Nelson-Atkins was always a popular place to visit.) Sitting opposite an expansive sculpture garden and straddled by Claus Oldenburg's witty Shuttlecocks, the public probably wanted a respectful design to the existing museum and its grounds. And they probably don't see it in Holl's "shipping container" architecture.

Ultimately, I think any judgment needs to wait until the building is actually done, preferably after it's had a chance to be used, both indoors and out. A lot of beloved buildings have started their existence with hatred, only to gain favor over time; why should this be any different?

Update 03.18: The Kansas City Star publishes a piece by James Hart on yesterday's "town hall" meeting. Transcript follows (thanks to Eric M. for the update).
The architect who designed a hotly debated addition to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art asked Kansas Citians for one thing Thursday night: patience.

The construction is not complete on the Bloch Building, and visitors need to tour the building's interior to really appreciate the space, Steven Holl told an audience Thursday night.

He predicted the addition would draw large crowds to see the museum's art collection.

“What's most important is the experience,” Holl said.

The construction has generated strong reactions, positive and negative. So the museum turned Holl's scheduled speech Thursday evening into a community forum. Unity Temple on the Plaza was close to full with people who came to listen — and speak.

Joe Williams, a museum volunteer, was the first audience member to go to the microphone. The new addition, he said, looks out of place against the original building. He wondered what, if anything, could be done at this point.

“I suspect this whole proceeding is an inquiry about spilled milk,” Williams said.

While many speakers questioned the project — several worried about the effect on neighbors — Holl also received applause when he promised the addition would draw more visitors to the museum and provide more space for its collection.

At times he poked fun at himself, noting that one critic had said the addition's layout looks like a “broken clarinet.”

“I like that,” Holl said. “Architecture and music.”

The Bloch Building is the major element of a $200 million expansion and overhaul of the museum. The limestone face of the original building has been cleaned and restored, and considerable changes to the interior are well under way.

“This will be a whole new museum,” museum director and chief executive Marc Wilson said recently.

The addition will nearly double the museum's square footage. Holl's design weaves the building in and out of the ground. The underground levels of the building extend more than 800 feet along the east side of the grounds.

Above ground will be five irregularly shaped glass-covered structures called lenses or pavilions. The smaller ones will serve something like skylights. The largest will contain offices, a library, meeting rooms and a soaring lobby area. Between the buildings will be sloping lawns and pieces from the Nelson's sculpture collection.

Grumbling about the Bloch building arose last summer as custom glass planks began defining the outer walls of the largest pavilion. Neighbors and passers-by expressed displeasure with the look of the building and its size.

Museum trustee Henry Bloch acknowledged recently that he had received an earful from the public. But he said he was confident and listening to the experts. He said they have reassured him that the building bearing his family's name would be beautiful and attract international attention.

Earlier this year, commentators and letter writers seemed to turn up the heat. The museum found itself on the defensive, so Holl's visit Thursday was turned into an opportunity to address the public.

Wilson and others have asked for patience as construction continues.

Holl predicted that by May, when glass installation on all five of the pavilions is closer to completion, the building will begin to make more sense.

“Art is about controversy,” Holl said earlier Thursday while walking through the construction site. “It's good to get people all agitated. Then when we let them in, they'll be overwhelmed.

“The thing with great architecture,” he said, “is people either are going to love it or they're going to hate it. That's because it's got something.”

On Thursday night he noted that his art museum in Helsinki, Finland, attracted lots of negative attention before it was finished. “But at the opening, everybody was there. And it was a great, great opening.”

The forum Thursday ended civilly.

“I wish we had this much discussion whenever we built a Wal-Mart,” landscape architect Matt Schoell-Schafer said.

Update 04.04: The Kansas City Star publishes a positive review of Holl's addition, with images.


  1. I visited the Nelson Gallery in September attending my high school reunion. I don't keep up with the home town much since my parents death and so I was surprised at the addition under construction and impressed with the selection of the architect. Given the site and the old building, I thought the concept was great, sweeping down the side of the old building and the suggestion (only the steel framing was in place) of open, light infused spaces. The model in the gallery was very crude and no drawings of the completed addition were visible when I was there. My concern was the new entrance to the museum is through the addition which lacked presence when compared to the old building. Details are all important. As to the controversy - do I dare say provincial? Why did I move to California?

  2. I attended a lecture here in Toronto by Steven Holl, and this is one of the projects he discussed. Personally, I think it's brilliant (even the interior of the parking garage is beautifully integrated with the art piece on the surface of the reflecting pool) but of course I don't have any personal association with the existing site.

    As for the issue of computer renderings, I think they are usually a big mistake: They look too 'real', and so people have a reasonable expectation that is exactly what the finished product will look like. We use some 3-d modelling tools for our own purposes, but if we have to present to a client we always hand-trace and colour those renderings to make it that much more distinct from a realistic computer rendering. I think there has to be a middle ground between computer-generated realism and overly-expressionistic squiggles.


  3. From an old classmate at KSU (Jeff S.), via e-mail:

    The channel glass for the Nelson is actually imported by Bendheim, not Pilkington. It was run at a custom width, is made of low iron glass for a clearer (less green) color rendition, and I believe the interior face has been etched. Much of the complaint surrounding the building is actually due to the glass system's opacity... there is a white insulation blanket placed in between each of the channel glass sections. The channels are installed in an interlocking manner to provide an insulating air cavity. With the clear low iron glass, interior white insulation, and wider than normal glass sections, the panels take on an appearance similar to the insulated metal panels typically associated with metal industrial/farm buildings (in the eyes of much of the public.) In my humble opinion, the "lenses" would have been more successful had they actually been allowed to remain more transparent like glass and less opaque. It just occurred to me that the current material selection is actually very similar in appearance to what you would associate as "Kalwall" only it cost about 10x's as much. The glass budget for the Nelson addition is over $6 million.

  4. Steven Holl is typically overly protective of his “concepts” to a depth that compromise a balanced, well planned, and well detailed project when completed. His buildings lack much of the sensuality and care that go into exceptional architecture. I have seen a half dozen of his buildings and have not once felt satisfied, having always left me with a sense of missed opportunity. Another mid-west museum, the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha is a similar with regards to the original building. This Norman Foster addition is simple, brilliant, efficient and powerful in use of space, day lighting, material, and the way it approaches the context. I think it is an appropriate comparison. I would expecting similar architecture from the Piano Art Institute addition.

    That’s my bit!

  5. The maxim for top architects must be "Never, ever admit that you screwed up, because you will never get a big commission again". Listening to Hol respond to questions at the open forum is like listening to a masterful politician. Question: "Were you surprised at how the glass panels looked?" A: "No, they are exactly as I expected them" Really?! _Exactly_ as expected?! Q: "The original model had a monolithic referred to it as a 'lens' or a jeweled case. The actual buildings have a lot of vertical and horizontal lines. Was this your original conception or did it change" A: "Digital pictures have pixelation, paintings have brush strokes. The way the things work in sequence will be much different from how they work now...have patience" A direct question goes unanswered, which to me means that he doesn't want to answer or can't without violating the first maxim. I don't buy the arguement that we should wait, and when we are inside, we will be impressed. Any huge space is inherently dramatic. You don't need to be a world famous architect to make a giant shipping container that will be a dramatic space. The inside of a nuclear power plant cooling tower is amazingly dramatic. Successful architecture has to work on all levels. Finally it really irks me, the implication that this bristling by the "locals" is because we are a bunch of uneducated rubes. It doesn't take a sophisticate to know what is going on when someone sells you a holstein and delivers a guernsey, no matter how much shucking and jiving the salesman does to try to convince you otherwise.

  6. My name is Marc Fink and I work in sales and marketing for Bendheim Wall Systems, provider of the LINIT channel glass - manufactured by Lamberts in Germany - for the Nelson Atkins project. For the record, Steven Holl has designed several projects using channel glass, some have our glass installed while others use Pilkington's. A Steven Holl project nearly complete using our LINIT channel glass is at Pratt's Higgins Hall in Brooklyn, NY, from his site you can compare channel glass renderings between the two projects. Second, at Nelson Atkins an insulating layer was required to knock down the UV number, the intent to protect the artwork within. Most of our LINIT channel glass projects have not required insulation. As with most glass materials, the look of channel glass can vary dramatically depending on the lighting, for reference look at or images of Polshek Partnership's AIA 2005 COTE winner for the Heimbold Visual Arts Center at Sarah Lawrence College and Schwartz/Silver's Shaw Center for the Arts at the architects' and institutions' sites. As the Nelson Atkins building is under construction, no one has seen this glass properly backlit, and it is scheduled to open in 2007. Considering Steven Holl's vision and experience in designing with channel glass, all should save comments until the project is completed. For any questions about Bendheim Wall Systems LINIT channel glass, call me at 800-221-7379.

  7. I know this is an old post, but I thought someone who lives near the Nelson should put in two cents... Nelson lawn is a beloved civic space, almost as much as the museum itself. Any change to either will always face a lot of public scrutiny.

    There is a very strong feeling of bait and switch in the community. It was the translucent "lens" drawing that was hyped in the media and promoted throughout the fundraising to pay for the expansion. But the building rising out of the ground departs significantly from that first look.

    The original lens concept showed very ethereal buildings that seemed to melt away in the presence of the classic Nelson building. The reality is that the buildings have a much more substantial presence that competes with the main building in way that the community was not prepared for.

    Another problem is that initially the Nelson said these structures were to be lenses for getting light into the underground galleries. Now it looks like the buildings themselves will contain galleries and the ancillary structures like staircases, floors, utilities, etc.

    The bottom line is that the community bought into a very cutting edge, unique design but is actually getting someting very different.

  8. Holl sights his dejavu by remembering that "his art museum in Helsinki, Finland, attracted lots of negative attention before it was finished. “But at the opening, everybody was there. And it was a great, great opening.”
    - although here the Nelson is no where close to the design caliber of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Helsinki, Finland


Comments are moderated for spam.